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On the Throne / Howard's still king, but these guys are selling by the gross

THERE WAS THE GUY who ate the mouse. There were the women

stuffed into 55-gallon drums. There was the dominatrix kicking the masochist

live in the studio. There was the unprintable word thrust into a television

news feed. There was the woman who flashed the "Today" show-that was on "Whip

'em Out Wednesday," a stunt brought down from Boston that has given WOW a

double meaning.

These are all the handiwork, as it were, of "Opie and Anthony," a pair of

Long Island dudes who have taken New York radio by storm, and who may be the

first real local threat to the longtime dominance of Howard Stern on the air.

Opie is Gregg Hughes of Centerport, clean-cut and blond, with a guileless

smile and a hearty, helpless laugh. Anthony is Anthony Cumia of Elwood, who

sports a dark goatee and a devilish grin, an inspired mimic whose Charlton

Heston and Tom Brokaw ("Tom Brokenjaw") are staples of the pair's afternoon

show on talk radio WNEW/102.7 FM.

Doublehandedly, Opie and Anthony have raised a station that had been

hopelessly mired in the cellar up toward respectability (in ratings, not

material). The two of them are now the highest-rated afternoon talkers in New

York, and (even better, as far as their bosses and their advertisers are

concerned) No. 1 among male listeners of every age.

And while they've been growing, the King of All Media has been sinking, to

the point where, according to Vince Santarelli, editor of the monthly New York

radio newsletter Apple Bites, Stern's ratings have fallen to their lowest level

since 1995. In addition, the average age of their audiences is exactly the

same: 32.5 years old. Of course, Stern is on in the mornings and Opie and

Anthony are heard in the afternoons, so there is no direct competition and,

therefore, no direct comparison. But, with Howard sounding tired after decades

of analyzing thousands of female bodies, and Opie and Anthony still sounding

amazed that they're getting the chance, there is the inevitable suspicion that

the king's crown may be slipping.

It's even gotten to the point that Stern has supposedly demanded that no

one on any Infinity Broadcasting-owned station (his own K-Rock, WXRK/92.3 FM,

and their WNEW are sister stations) be allowed to mention his name. Stern has

been complaining on the air that he isn't permitted to use the language that

Opie and Anthony can. And recently, one of Stern's more strident fans was

arrested after leaving a bomb threat on Opie's answering machine. (He was

jailed for one night and released.)

Nevertheless, there's the inevitable suspicion that the whole thing is a

put-on. While Stern's ratings are down, he is still miles ahead of all his

morning competitors in New York. And radio feuds have been a publicist's dream

since the days that Jack Benny dissed Fred Allen-which was before World War II.

That on-air ban is based on a newspaper story using anonymous sources,

though WNEW staffers coyly refuse to comment on questions about it and Opie and

Anthony's producers insert the words "radio edit" whenever Stern's name might

be mentioned. And Stern himself can't be reached for comment. "Howard Stern

does not give interviews," said his spokesman, Don Buchwald. "He says what he

has to say on the air."

"The fact is, the same logo is on these guys' paychecks," said radio

industry consultant Walter Sabo. "The fact is that they are both making shows.

Whether the feud is real or not, isn't it a great show? It gets you to write

about it."

Indeed, the entry of Opie and Anthony into New York is one of the hottest

radio stories around. Hughes, 35, a graduate of Harborfields High School, and

Cumia, 37, who attended John Glenn High School, first teamed up on Long Island

rock station WBAB/102.3 FM in 1994. Opie was the evening personality and

Anthony, whose day job was installing air conditioning, started off as a

frequent guest.

Oddly enough, they never knew one another as kids; "We probably wouldn't

have gotten along," Hughes said. When the station had no place for them as a

team, the pair went up to Boston's WAAF/107.3 FM in 1995, where their

outrageous stunts and parodies quickly made them the region's No. 1 show for

men. They invented WOW in Boston, and it became so popular that the

Massachusetts State Police, according to former station manager Bruce Mittman,

asked them to lay off because it was causing highway accidents.

When they were fired in 1998 over an April Fool's joke (they reported that

the mayor had been killed in an automobile accident), it didn't take long

before stations around the country were on the phone. But when WNEW told them

it would build its entire station around them, they were hooked.

"We even met the big guy, Mel [Karmazin, head of CBS, which owns

Infinity]," Hughes recalled. WNEW, a classic rock station at the time, was only

a shell of what it had been in the heady days of progressive and free-form FM

radio during the 1970s. "Our decision was that no one wants to listen to this

music, so we started talking on our own," Hughes said. Indeed, their acerbic

remarks about the station's venerated DJs and the insults they threw at

outraged callers quickly drove away what was left of the station's original

audience.

Then they started to build a new one, primarily young men who enjoyed the

kind of talk that was once limited to locker rooms and particularly nasty bars.

Their humor is not strictly confined to sex, smells and excretion, however: On

a recent afternoon there was a hilarious, nearly hour-long riff about waiting

on line that segued to mishaps in movie theaters and culminated in a story by

Opie about sitting in an audience that refused to leave a showing of

"Independence Day," even though the theater was on fire.

It's very much the sort of thing that made Howard Stern famous a long time

ago, and both men freely acknowledge that they grew up on his humor. But

they've gone beyond him in vulgarity, which is hard to imagine. "Twenty years

ago these guys probably would have been intolerable," said media critic Mark

Crispin Miller of New York University. "Now they have enough people to listen

to them. It takes a certain adaptation for people to stomach and even enjoy

certain thrills."

Apparently, there are plenty of listeners with strong stomachs these days.

"When you say we're so gross that you have to turn it off," Cumia said, "there

are five or 10 people who just have to listen."

MOUTHING OFF

Howard Stern

WXRK

Opie and Anthony

WNEW

SPRING 1999:

Stern 17.3%

O&A 5.5%

SUMMER, 1999:

Stern 14.6%

O&A 7.5%

FALL, 1999:

Stern 17.7%

O&A 5.8%

WINTER, 2000:

Stern 17.6%

O&A 7.1%

SPRING, 2000:

Stern 15.4%

O&A 8.6%

NOTE: Based on males 25-54 listening during an average quarter hour.

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